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THEATER REVIEW Nice Girl
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2018-02-07

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Playwright: Melissa Ross

At: Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St. Tickets: $43-$46. Runs through: March 11

A woman 38 years old in 1984—when this play purports to be set—would have been born in 1946 and graduated from high school circa 1964. Since we are told that she was her family's second child, her now-"nearly 70" mother would likely have married during the mid-1940s. This hypothetical timeline is important because Melissa Ross has a penchant for infusing her rom-com sensibilities with a hazy ambience suggesting narratives of far earlier vintage.

The target of the title sobriquet is Miss Josephine Rosen. By day, she's a secretary at an accounting firm in the unprepossessing village of Milton, just south of Boston; by night, she's a caretaker for her slovenly ill-tempered mom, having decades ago forsaken an art scholarship at Radcliffe to return home for a temporary stay that never ended. Illustrating the adage about the apple falling from the tree, we later learn that Mama Francine also once abandoned her career aspirations to settle down with her small-town sweetheart.

Other representatives of this unexciting landscape are Josephine's former classmate, Donny Moretti, who himself dropped out of college after impregnating his trophy girl friend and who now works in his dad's grocery store. Only Jo's co-worker, Sherry—a divorcee who gladly surrendered child custody to her ex-spouse, attends night-school classes at Beauty School and cruises single bars—refuses to succumb to the crippling inertia infecting her more privileged neighbors.

The agony of young people enamored of social mobility and seeking escape from stifling provincial environments has beguiled playwrights from Chekhov to Tennessee Williams, but Ross' invocation of motifs recalling milestones in North American literature ( notably, Paddy Chayevsky's 1953 Marty ) generates a chronological-cognitive dissonance that prevents playgoers with first-hand memories of the era under scrutiny ever wholly committing to the author's dramatic universe, given its underlying assertion that girls who remain homebodies are ultimately rewarded with prince charming in a butcher's apron, while girls who embrace ambition/adventure are doomed to loneliness and rejection.

The actors of Raven Theatre Company extend unconditional compassion to stock characters easily bordering on stereotype, but a production as geographically-specific as this—did I mention the accurate-to-unintelligible "Southie" dialects, or the name-checking of indigenous Massachusetts communities?—deserves better than soap long divested of its sudsy attractions.


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